There Must Be a Reason

Most current American fiction,by its very nature, and especially science fiction and fantasy, generally tends to repudiate the “absurdist” movement of the French existentialists of the mid-twentieth century. Does this repudiation, both directly and through its indirect influence on other media, actually perpetuate the very question that the existentialists raised, as well as help fuel the high degree of religious belief in the United States? Now that I have at least a few readers stunned…

I’ll doubtless end up grossly oversimplifying, but since I don’t wish to write the equivalent of an English Ph.D. dissertation, we’ll go for a modicum of simplicity. Sartre and Camus and others of the absurdist school tended to put forth the proposition that, in essence, life had no intrinsic meaning, that it was “absurd,” and that, in as illustrated in Camus’s L’Etranger, the only real choice one had in life was what to do with one’s life, i.e., whether to take a meaningful step to end it or to let life continue meaninglessly.

The question is, simply enough: “Does an individual life have intrinsic worth or meaning by the mere fact of existence?” The absurdist view would tend to imply that it doesn’t. The deeply religious Christian view is that every single life has meaning to the Deity.

While I can’t claim, and won’t, to have read even a significant faction of the something like 30,000 new adult fiction titles published every year, at times I have read a large fraction of what’s been published in the F&SF field, and I can’t recall more than a handful of books that discussed or considered intelligently the absurdist premises or more than a tiny fraction where the characters acted as though life had no intrinsic meaning. In some, a disturbing fraction, I have to admit, that intrinsic meaning was to be available to get slaughtered by the heroes or the villains, but a certain sense of value was still placed on the lives of even the most worthless.

Is this comparative authorial lack of interest in the possible meaninglessness of life bad? Not necessarily. In LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, however, one of her characters makes the statement that to oppose something is to maintain it. I’d suggest, following LeGuin’s words, that the continued cheerful, and unthinking assumption that life has intrinsic Deity-supported meaning leaves all too many readers and people wondering if that is really so… and why they should believe it.

For whatever wonder may be generated, though, very little finds its way to the printed fiction page.

I will offer one observation and clarification. Many, many authors speculate on the meaninglessness of a given character’s chosen life path, but that isn’t the same as whether life has an intrinsic meaning to or within the universe. In fact, I could even claim that the realization of or belief in a meaningless occupation or set of acts affirms the idea that life is meaningful in a cosmic sense — an application in a backwards way of LeGuin’s words.

Yet… on one side we have a universe some sixteen billion light years across in all directions with some 100 billion galaxies, each with between 50 and 100 billion stars, with the believers in intrinsic meaning claiming that each life has a special meaning. And there’s almost no one on the other side?

Well… maybe there are many on the other side, but outside of Richard Dawkins and those few like him, I’m not seeing all that many, and I’ve certainly not read about many heroes or heroines who look up into the night sky and consider the odds on whether life has that kind of meaning. Almost a century ago, Alfred North-Whitehead observed that when one wishes to understand truly a society, one should examine the basic assumptions of that culture, those which are so basic that no one has ever scrutinized them. I’d submit that one of those assumptions underlying western European-derived culture is that there is a God-given meaning to each life, and that the fact that the absurdist proposition died away so quickly suggests that this assumption remains strong… and largely unexamined.

I tend to deal with this issue, as I suspect a few other writers do, at the second remove, by having my characters act along the lines of: If there is a God/prime mover, then we should do the best we can because that’s what expected; if there’s not, it’s even more important that we do our best because we’re not getting any divine support.

But I do wonder if we’ll see many popular atheist/absurdist heroes or heroines anytime in the near future.